Venice, Italy • June 2019 • Length of Read: 5 Minutes
In days gone by, gondolas were used as the primary means of transporting goods and individuals around the waterways of Venice in northern Italy. More famous than the vessels themselves, however, are their smooth operators. Instantly recognisable in their red striped tops, dark trousers, and straw hats, gondoliers now operate as tour guides as opposed to truck drivers, but the profession is no less noble. Around 400 licenses are in circulation at any one point and these can only be granted once a lengthy apprenticeship has been served and a comprehensive exam passed. Not only do individuals have to master practical boating skills, but also foreign languages and Venetian history. The result of all this: a magical, romantic ride through the city’s antiquated canals against the backdrop of a beautifully unique tapestry.
Eva and I picked up one of these grand vessels from a jetty just under the Rialto Bridge, at the edge of a piazza where dozens of tables sprawled out from compact restaurants and offered fatigued travellers the enviable opportunity to rest their weary feet and enjoy some al fresco drinks and dining. Our gondolier for the standard half-hour time slot was a long-haired silver fox who, before even picking up his oar, offered to take our photo sat on the pillowed throne. A man who definitely knew his audience. Pictures snapped, he then took up a standing position at the rear of the boat and, with a twizzle of the paddle, effortlessly backed us out the parking space; the gondola rocking left and right as we slowly floated our way into the busy thoroughfare where dozens of other copycat boats crisscrossed in an organised web of bedlam.
Navigating down a narrow side street, we were given a brief history of the grandiose buildings that slowly passed us by, but for the most part, our gondolier kept quiet and allowed Eva and I to hold hands and bask in the tranquillity of the lagoon. It was romantic in the most clichéd manner and would make a remarkably tacky wedding proposal, but the cheesy nature of the ride took nothing away from the pleasantry of the experience and the short but sweet trip marked my first bucket list item of 2019 being ticked off. Most importantly, however, it was the first of what I hope will be many more experiences shared with Eva by my side.
Following a tourist-trap dinner, we made our way to Piazza San Marco as the sun eventually set, guided through the narrow streets by the ethereal sound of classical music that rose peacefully over the curt choir of American families on their European summer holidays. In the city’s vast main square, we cut through the pods of camera-clad visitors capturing the remarkable Venetian architecture an took a seat at Caffé Florian. The second-oldest café in the world, this establishment has had gentlemanly waiters in pristine white jackets and bowties serving up drinks and cakes since 1720; a live concerto playing soundtrack to the guest’s unique dining experience. Ordering a glass of wine for Eva and a Venetian spitz for myself, we settled down to enjoy the late-night entertainment as the music and setting transported us back in time.
The elderly couple at the table next to us were incredibly well turned out, the bottle of champagne on ice sat atop their table, glistening necklace around the lady’s neck, and well-pressed suit jacket on her husband’s back the most immediate clues that they were living out their retirement in the upper echelons of society. During a break between compositions, the man shuffled his way to the front of the stage and handed the clarinet player a 50 Euro note before uttering a few muffled words in Italian. Upon returning to his seat, the band then burst into a timeless rendition of Happy Birthday, much to the overwhelming delight of his wife. In the city of romance, chivalry certainly isn’t dead.
The accordion player was a cute, white-haired Italian man; hunched over his instrument with pride and a seemingly permanent smile across his face that made his crow’s feet laughter lines a permanent feature. It was clear that he performed for the love of the music, which is how it should be. “Is anyone here from France?” he asked the audience, attempting to drum up an atmosphere. A few ‘whoops’ came from the tables at the back in response. “Germany?” A smattering of claps from left-of-stage. “China?” A solitary cheer from one couple at the front. “USA?” Raucous applause, what else.
After what felt like a laundry list of nationalities, the entire UN membership having been called upon besides Greece, much to Eva’s annoyance, the band started the second act of their setlist. “No matter where you’re from,” the accordion player continued, “You’ll all know this one. Feel free to sing along.”
With Frank Sinatra and the theme from Pirates of the Caribbean having already been showcased from their repertoire, I was excited to hear their classic take on a blockbuster smash, but what came out the piano and violin was not only foreign to Eva and myself, but seemingly every other nationality represented in the audience that evening. One woman stood at the rear appeared to be unsurely humming along, but even this was more in support than in any great excitement for the song. Nevertheless, the band carried on unperturbed.
As the evening passed in a blur of music and wine, I looked at Eva, raised my glass and smiled. “Thanks for making this bucket list item so magical,” I toasted. “To many more adventures further on up the road.”
“To many more adventures further on up the road,” she smiled.